George Burgess Talks About Shark Finning and Conservation

Shark fins. Photo: Elira/Shutterstock

In 2000, a graduate student at the Imperial College of London named Shelley Clarke began using shark fin data from the auction houses of Hong Kong and the ports of Taiwan to estimate how many sharks, and what species, were heading off for sale at the world’s biggest market. She used her data to estimate a global take of 38 million sharks a year—though she said that that number could be as low as 26 million and as high as 73 million.

Her paper was important in that it provided the first scientific estimate for the number of sharks being traded based on the take of fins, offering scientists and fisheries managers a number for the global shark trade they could rely on. Though people in many countries eat shark flesh, fins are the most valuable part of the fish. As a result, fins made it to market, while bodies often didn’t. Some fishermen sliced the fins off and let the live sharks drown. Others took the fins off dead sharks, but with no set rules in place, there was no way to tell. As a result, many countries have now required shark fins to be taken ashore with the corresponding body. Most recently, the European Union ruled that fishermen must take the fins and the body to dock.

There are 471 species of sharks in the world, and scientists with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have categorized at least 73 of them as threatened. The truth is, scientists know very little about almost half of those species—212 shark species are categorized as data deficient. To find out more about the conservation status of sharks and finning, we talked to George Burgess, a vice chair of the IUCN’s Shark Specialist Group.

How important was that study Shelley Clarke wrote?
That was an excellent paper. She was able to get some quantification and provide a nicely calculated estimate of how many sharks were dying in fisheries. That was very valuable, because as far as conservation goes, we now have a number we can pin our hats on. Before that, there was an estimate of about 40 to 50 million based on back-of-the-envelope calculations, but other people had said 100 million, which was supposed to be sharks and rays, not just sharks. But other people started using it as just sharks.

Why was Clarke's paper the last time a global assessment of the catch was done using shark fins?
The amount of time to gather the data and ability to penetrate the very secret world of fin buyers makes this likely a once-in-a-lifetime study. It would be like trying to get documentation of the world heroin or cocaine trade by monitoring buyers and sellers. Shelley was able to pull it off because she speaks fluent Chinese (and Japanese if I recall correctly) and spent a lot of time in Hong Kong, the major center of trade. This study represented her Ph.D. dissertation and she probably devoted 10 years of her life to the project from start to finish.

Shelley Clarke on shark finning.

Is shark finning the number one conservation issue concerning sharks?
Fundamentally, sharks are most valuable not for their meat, but for the fins. In most areas of the world outside of the United States, shark represents a big chunk of flesh. It’s a valued commodity since people consume it to get protein, but here in the United States, shark is considered second class and there’s not a huge market for it.The world fisheries where sharks are getting nailed the hardest are the offshore longline fisheries aimed at tuna and swordfish, both of which are high-end products in terms of value. The fishing is occurring in international waters outside of national controls, and the factory ships only have so much space in the freezers for their valued products—that’s tuna and swordfish. They don’t have room for sharks, which have less value. Under those circumstances, historically, most of those vessels would take the fins off of the shark and save them because they are of great economic value. Here in the U.S., fins coming right off the boat cost $20 to $30 a pound. They’re very, very valuable. They don’t have to go into freezers. All they have to do is throw them on the side of the deck because they’re dried. It doesn’t matter how you treat them. That’s what happened.

A longline is essentially a miles-long fishing line with thousands of hooks attached. The sharks might be alive or dead when they came to the boat. The process of finning, for context, is when somebody takes the fins off a live shark, and throws the still-live animal back into the sea minus the fins. It’s a wasteful process because the flesh is just discarded. Obviously, there are also the moral consequences of essentially sending an animal back to its death. The taking of just fins off of an already dead shark constitutes a wasteful practice in which only part of the animal is harvested. That’s a different consequence. It’s not good. There’s shark mortality involved. But it’s not finning. The consequence of all of this is that the value of fins serves as the economic motivator for capturing sharks.

In the world fisheries where sharks are targeted, the fins represent the most valuable part of the animal. In other areas, the flesh obviously is eaten, and comes to shore to serve a nobler purpose. So there’s the shark fin economics, which is what Shelley was referring to in her dissertation, and that tells us how many fins are being sent in, and how many animals have given up their lives, one way or the other. It does not refer only to the inhumane practice of taking the fins off of live animals. In many areas of the world, the process of finning, which involves the inhumane death, is illegal. Certainly in U.S. waters, and in many other waters around the world, you have to bring in the appropriate number of carcasses with the appropriate number of fins, and if you don’t, then you will be prosecuted for finning. Unfortunately, in the international waters we’re dealing with different sets of standards and definitely different sets of policing. But the wasteful practice of only taking fins off of dead animals and the inhumane process of taking fins off of live animals still does occur at some level. 

The E.U. just made it illegal to take the fins off without the body?
Yeah, they have, and they’re only about 20 years late in doing so, but it is a very positive step. I send kudos out to all of the folks who for years have been trying to make that happen. Obviously the E.U. has historically important fishing fleets; the Spanish and Portuguese fleets go well outside of their waters to fish internationally. Having that as part of the E.U. standards is a very positive step forward and we definitely applaud their steps to do so. And hopefully other countries and regions in the world will follow their lead. 

In terms of helping to conserve sharks, what’s the next biggest law that could be made?
I think we’re going to have to do the same thing with sharks that we’re doing with tunas and swordfish, which is to have international cooperation in limiting the catches based on scientific evidence. We need to do proper fishery management on these animals. Sharks can still be captured in a sustainable way, but it has to be done carefully. Each kind of animal has it’s own biological characteristics which allow for fishery management and conservation. Sharks have unique biological characteristics, which include living a long time, reaching sexual maturity at an older age, and then having limited reproductive capacity—they have fewer young than other fishes. The result is that recovery for sharks is much slower than it is for an animal that puts out thousands of eggs and sperm into the environment that makes thousands of larvae. So each animal has to be managed appropriate to their biology, and we’re happy to deal sharks into the management milieu, along with the tuna and swordfish that we’re working on through cooperative international agreements.

Are tuna and swordfish the only species with major international regulation?
They are the main two. There are some regulations for important coastal migratory species, for example salmon. There’s international cooperation between the United States and Canada. But realistically, tuna and swordfish are about it in terms of real international agreements. And not surprisingly, that’s because they are the aces of the marine world in terms of their price and value. If sharks had the same value for the last three or four decades, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. They’d have already been dealt in. They are newcomers to the equation in terms of their economic value, and frankly, they probably wouldn’t even be discussed at all if they didn’t have fins.

This is the third in a series of articles and interviews about sharks.
Part 1: Surviving a Great White Shark Attack
Part 2: George Burgess on the Science of Shark Attacks

—Joe Spring

Filed To: ScienceNature
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